Talking 'Bout My Generation

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When Nike used "Revolution" in a TV commercial, I didn't blink. I loved the Beatles, but they broke up when I was 10. They were part of my mental landscape, not my emotional one. Perhaps I'm suffering a midlife crisis as I turn 40, or I am now a complete hypocrite, but in the past few months my heart has been crushed by TV commercials that abuse the music from my teenage years, the mid- to late 1970s.

The chief culprit is a Priceline.com spot, by Hill, Holliday, set in one of those trendy, poetry-slash-coffeehouses that signifies bohemian Yuppieism at its most abrasive. Initially, I enjoyed the commercial as audio-visual wallpaper, watching, as I do, while multitasking. Priceline frontman William Shatner recited some lines in the ironic, mocking patter of the poetry slam. The lyrics underneath did not register. Suddenly, the second or third time I heard it, I froze. I ordered the four kids behind the security gate and turned up the volume. Shatner was rapping "Free Bird," the Lynyrd Skynyrd song.

"Free Bird!" I cried. No! Not the beloved anthem of my bygone youth! "Free Bird" constituted the emotional core of my life. Never mind the sophomoric lyrics and complete absence of subtext - "I'm as free as a bird, now," flies no farther - this was my life anthem. That bombastic keyboard intro, those first few drawn-out guitar notes, stretched across a slide guitar, still snap me back in time. I latched on to "Free Bird" the way that self-aware teenage girls latched on to Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen, or Simone de Beauvoir.

If you weren't there, teenagers in the 1970s were roughly divided into "Free Bird" versus "Stairway to Heaven" camps of existential thought. My buddies and I were Genesee Cream Ale-drinking, shopping-mall-trolling, mailbox-knocking-over, "Free Bird"-loving knuckleheads.

Potsmokers went for "Stairway" and "Dark Side of the Moon." Subgroups existed for "Layla," "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Smoke on the Water," and, of course, "Born to Run."

Before music videos existed, "Free Bird" was my life's soundtrack. When I downed my first illegal beer, drove my first car, took my first road trip to Wildwood, N.J., "Free Bird" accompanied me. When I reached adulthood, Biblically speaking, "Free Bird" lent moral, if not logistical, support.

And now, William Shatner. What makes his mockery more painful is that I began to mature sexually through the alien babes Captain Kirk fondled on Star Trek. I was not a brainy teenager. Smarter kids deciphered Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan song lyrics with the passion of Talmudic scholars. I didn't have such intellectual leanings. My pool's deep end stopped at J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and Monty Python.

After the shock of seeing "Free Bird" cooked on the rotisserie of pop advertising, I stumbled across the Nissan Pathfinder commercial in which Yuppies play cliffside SUV polo, to the tune of The Who's "Teenage Wasteland." This is irony with layers like Lebanese pastry - a pompous counterculture anthem, the aging Yuppies who worshipped it, the old-money symbolism of polo - all undercut by the naive nostalgia for our stoned rebellion. And this demented nostalgia sells us overpriced baby-schleppers.

Then Web TV murdered The Doobie Brothers' "China Grove" and, more poignantly, Boston's epic sophomoric jingle, "More Than A Feeling." Tommy Hilfiger turned The Guess Who's classic "American Woman" into Macy's Muzak for the Scream generation.

I remember people freaking out when they heard Janis Joplin's eerily prophetic "Mercedes Benz" turned into an actual Mercedes-Benz commercial. Now I sympathize. Mourning the death of my beloved "Free Bird," I feel like some pointy-headed academic complaining in The New York Review of Books about the death of serious fiction.

But still: A brief window opened on American pop history when teenagers grasped rock songs like life preservers. "Free Bird" meant more to me than my high school, my car, my beer can collection. Don't try to convince me that teenagers today cling to Korn or Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit songs with such serious pre-David Letterman lack of irony. We didn't have irony in the '70s. We had iron-ons.

The rock songs of my teen years were not marketed or promoted much beyond "A" and "B" sides, but rose organically, through our collective consciousness. Replayed endlessly, until the vinyl gave out, our rock anthems saved us, if only from dreams of shag carpeting and paneled basements. We fortysomethings were sleepwalking idiots compared to teenagers today. But we loved our bombastic rock narratives. Ask any guy with a bald spot where his Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Bad Company, or Jethro Tull albums are, and he will tell you in a heartbeat: In the basement, in a cool, dry spot, in stolen milk crates, filed alphabetically.

Bruce Stockler (stocklerx4@aol.com), formerly the editor of Millimeter, is a journalist and humorist.

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